On the legacy route: A boost from the past

Old catalogues dating back to the 1930s are coming in handy for the progeny to make historical archival inquiries to bring company's bloodline back.

In the mid-1960s, young Natvar Parikh had just entered the business of supplying labour force to warehouses in Bombay. He had come a long way from a humble kirana (groceries) store that he had started in Ahmedabad, after college. Not resting on his laurels for even a moment, the budding entrepreneur was always on the lookout for avenues to diversify. As soon as Natwar saw an opportunity, he pooled in his resources to start a venture that would not only bring him revenue, but also aid the running of his ongoing businesses.

The launch of PL-480 programme between India and the US through which rice from the US was to be supplied via 600 ships was the push he needed to diversify into transportation business. Natwar bagged the contract for handling and transporting food shipments from docks to warehouses across Mumbai. Soon, he added a fleet of trucks, all stamped with the mark ‘Azad Malvahak’ to his already growing range of services. Today, Apurva Natvar Parikh Group continues the tradition by offering specialised services in transportation, lifting, shipping, logistics and warehousing.

For Rohan and Anuja Parikh, Natwar’s grandchildren, genesis and stupendous growth of the family business that they are now an active part of, remained a mystery. That is until they engaged in a formal archival inquiry into their group’s history. Increasingly, a growing number of small and medium-sized, family-run enterprises are becoming conscious of the importance of legacy management. It is no longer considered a domain of 100-year-old conglomerates with a long history of character and value. Neither is it scorned as an unnecessary indulgence or an expensive burden. Legacy that has been inherited by business families has changed lives and will continue in future generations as well.

The need to preserve one’s business heritage typically kicks in 50-60 years after an enterprise is formally established. Grandchildren or great grandchildren, who have never met the founding generation or have vague memories of their childhood, passionately champion the cause. In the minds of these relatives, the heroic founder is an invincible figure who overcame incredible challenges to create a system that has endured the test of time. Archival inquiry thus focuses as much on the spirit of entrepreneurship, as on the sustainability story.

Professional archivists, through a combination of qualification and experience, rationally investigate and document history. Photographs, correspondence, speeches, annual reports, product catalogues etc., are some of the archival staples business archivists pour over. However, in the absence of internal records — as is the case usually — a narrative is built first through oral testimonies, followed by a critical study into sector evolution. The latter is done to recognise a single firm’s response to industry and global trends and viewed as a helpful touch-point to study the country’s business history. A dynamic archival programme acts as agents of the past to comprehend the present and prepare for the future.

A deep awareness of one’s own unique legacy provides that distinct competitive edge to family-run business.

While the archival process is necessarily an introspective one, archivists are finding novel ways to present this information through insightful storytelling. Limited edition leather-bound publications and keepsake coffee-table books bring together a wealth of information both in words and images and are a handy reference for the next generation of leaders or new partners being brought into the fold. To display related graphics and videos, social media, personalised websites and mobile-apps and e-books are being offered as supplements to traditional books. Those inclined towards the arts, with a family tradition of supporting artisans, have also shown a keen interest in commissioning artworks inspired by their legacy.

These tools offer another, more enduring reminder to both employees and customers of the rich heritage of the company. More companies than ever are searching to connect to customers in a way that is natural and true to their ethos.

Take the case of Bharat Flooring Tiles for instance. In 1999, when Dilnavaz Variava of Bharat Flooring Tiles found the company’s old moulds in a forgotten factory shed, little did she know that her chance discovery would lead the company into a new era. Today, the BFT’s HeritageTM Tiles celebrate vintage designs launched by her father in the 1920s and 1930s and can be seen on floors of clubs, hotels, and public buildings across the country, including a number of Mumbai’s refurbished architectural landmarks such as the Cathedral and John Connon School and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. “I found old catalogue from the 1920s and 30s and an old book from 1922 to 1941 with iconic jobs that we had done for maharajas, hospitals and cinemas. We couldn’t have brought this line back without all the history and testimonials and letters,” Ms Variava said.

(The writer is an archivist and founder of Past Perfect — a legacy management company.)

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